Ingrid Burrington recently spoke at the 4th Floor, “a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts” at the Chattanooga Public Library. She talked in detail about her research into the physical internet and the ways in which we can interact with that physical presence, including Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide. My infrastructure seeking eyes that follow power lines and stormwater overflow and ears that stop at buzzing transformers and traffic signal cabinets have been renewed by Burrington’s investigations and provocations.
Chattanooga has one of the fastest internet speeds in the world. That internet is advertised widely and its impacts on development and gentrification within the city are readily apparent. The infrastructure of that internet is, however, still hidden in plain sight. Burrington reminds us that the powerful forces that mold our lives and are felt in the lived experience of the city are rooted in physical places and pipes and wires. Vast hidden networks, systems, and bodies power and maintain our daily lives. We can begin to see the full richness of the world and understand how to change it by questioning and attempting to see through the built world, by noticing the infrastructure under our feet, over our head, within our walls.
Similarly, we can begin to see the full richness of artworks by questioning and attempting to understand the context of the gallery and the museum that hold them. It is no surprise the wall color, the lights, the temperature, the presence of other bodies affects our experience of artworks. The context of the museum exists in plain sight, if we know how to look for it and if we are vigilant in investigating the traces that cannot be erased.
Gajin Fujita’s solo exhibition opened this month at the Hunter Museum of American Art. It is centered around four large, vibrant paintings that dominate the gallery. His paintings are bright and action-packed, and they reveal increasingly complex layers as they are unwrapped. They blend the figures, faces, themes, and composition of Japanese woodblock prints, contemporary pop cultural references, and graffiti culture. They mirror the digital world of anonymity and multiplicity. Beneath the flat, richly patterned, and layered surface, they reveal serious questions about the boundaries of appropriation and collaboration, formal cultural institutions and street art, traditional craft and the porousness of digital life.
A quote from Fujita on the wall above his painting K2S Crew reads, “Collaboration plays a role in my larger works…I invite friends from my crews to come in and tag the backgrounds. I started doing this because I wanted to mimic how we work on the street …the yard walls became heavily layered with graffiti, and I wanted to recreate a small piece of that within my paintings; the layer over layer over layer look.”
The paintings visually reflect that process, but the paintings themselves are far removed from the context of street art. The white walls of the gallery are sparsely hung; the paintings have labels explaining historic and contemporary references. Visitors are reminded that the gallery contains mature content. The “friends” and “crews” remain as anonymous as they would if they tagged buildings, yet Fujita is the only named and celebrated artist within the exhibition. The context of the Hunter is inextricable from the experience of Fujita’s work there, but I have questions about the work that can only flourish outside of the museum. I want to know more about Fujita’s process, the lived experience of co-creation, and the ways in which the infrastructure and people of LA intertwine with his work beyond the surface.
Fujita’s work, and all art, must live in multiple locations, within white cubes and out among the blooming trees, the pipes that carry sewage under our feet, and the electromagnetic waves that fuel our daily lives as they pass through us. We have hidden the world from ourselves, and we hide artworks within museums and galleries. It is the physical form of the internet that facilitates our simultaneous experience of locations around the world. How will museums and galleries help us experience the artwork they contain with similar simultaneity?